It happened almost with the first step off the plane at the Toronto airport last month. Someone, a friend or merely a concerned stranger, would stop to warn you of impending peril. They would plead with you to avoid the danger ahead in Elizabethtown, the Cameron Crowe film that screened early in the Toronto International Film Festival and was greeted by critics with scornful laughter and derisive cheers. "Horrible," said one colleague, almost before my bags were in the taxi; "a parody of a Cameron Crowe film." Proclaimed another, well before the hotel was in sight: "People wanted to leave, to flee, but were riveted to their seats in utter disbelief and horror."
Such dire proclamations tend to have one of two results: Either you rush into the theater to giddily wallow in the carnage, or you walk in with such low expectations that you can't help but walk out wondering why all the doomsaying.
Alas, Elizabethtown, shorn of 17 excessive minutes post-Toronto, is hardly a catastrophe -- hardly a thing bound to wreck a career or even an evening out. It's a mess, absolutely, more a collage than a narrative. It's terribly mawkish too, as though the writer-director has wrung from his previous efforts every teardrop and poured them into a giant bucket in which he's chosen to take a long swim. And those who have claimed Elizabethtown is an act of self-parody aren't far off; imagine Jerry Maguire turned up to 11, with its "You had me at 'Hello' " ending drawn out for the final 30 minutes -- a fourth act, literally, involving a son taking a road trip with a collection of CDs in the stereo and his dead dad's ashes in an urn strapped in the passenger seat.
But for all those flaws, Elizabethtown suffers only the sin of being too much a personal thing, which allows little distance for its maker, who will see not flaws or flubs but only himself (and his family, whose story Elizabethtown tells) reflected off the screen. And how much you choose to damn it depends upon how little slack you choose to give Crowe, who once more offers up a fictional version of himself (this time, played by Orlando Bloom) to tell a variation of a true tale. Those who liked his earlier movies, specifically Say Anything , Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, will not love this, but they will forgive its flaws. To that audience, Crowe has earned that much, if nothing else.
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Elizabethtown isn't a journal entry -- Crowe is an entertainer, not a confessor -- but it's close enough; it tells the story of a son going to Kentucky to claim his father's corpse, as Crowe had to do shortly after the release of Say Anything in 1989. In this slightly altered version of the truth, a hotshot sports-shoe designer named Drew Baylor (Bloom) is fired in disgrace from his cushy gig by his Zen-nasty boss, played by Alec Baldwin (who else?). Drew is all set to kill himself, using an inventive contraption consisting of a sharp blade affixed to an exercycle, when his sister (Judy Greer) phones with the bad news that their old man died in Kentucky while visiting kin. Drew postpones his suicide long enough to hop a flight to Elizabethtown (just outside Louisville), during which he meets a deceptively perky flight attendant named Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who apparently has the largest CD collection this side of Cameron Crowe. She will, of course, save Drew from himself; she had him at "Welcome aboard."
In Elizabethtown, a Norman Rockwell painting illuminated by sunsets and filled with the sound of chirping cicadas, Drew meets his old man's wacky assemblage of relatives, old friends and army buddies, played by such folks as TV chef Paula Deen, long-ago "New Dylan" folk-rocker Loudon Wainwright III and All the Real Girls' Paul Schneider as cousin Jessie, whose claim to fame is that his broken-up band almost opened for two original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 2000. Also there, in a small role, is Susan Sarandon as Drew's mother, who flips just a little after her husband's death. Drew, dressed in Jerry Maguire's hand-me-down black sports coat and T-shirt, drifts through Elizabethtown like a detached zombie, unable to cry over his old man's death and unable to connect with the relatives who fawn over him like a prodigal son.
This all sounds like Garden State transplanted to the Bluegrass State, but Elizabethtown doesn't have the glossy sitcom sheen of Zach Braff's directorial debut. It's far more rough and ragged, less a linear story than a compendium of scenes set to the Elton John, Tom Petty, Ryan Adams and My Morning Jacket songs Crowe was listening to when he wrote the film. In a way, it's like Almost Famous, Crowe's movie about his mom's reaction to his decision to become a rock journalist -- a collection of charming stories stitched together to give them emotional weight, when all they want to do is soar like three-minute pop songs that drift in and out of a perfect moment that can't possibly last.
There are wonderful moments here: Dunst telling Bloom they're "substitute people," killing time with the wrong people till the right one comes along; Sarandon tap-dancing away her bottled-up grief; Schneider getting to sing "Free Bird" at a memorial service, with My Morning Jacket as his backup band. And when taken individually, they earn their smile or their heartbreak. But it's just a little too much of too much; you want to tap Crowe on the shoulder and plead with him to rein it in. Yet also know that's impossible, because as much as this is supposed to be a movie for the audience, it's actually just for him, the writer and director and son saying good-bye to his dad.